There was no mistaking their cluster of survivors for anything but a tableau of defeat. It wasn't the circle of guards both uniformed and makeshift, nor the matching remains of black robes or green pajamas, it was the postures. Scores of people barely people any more; broken, frightened, exhausted beyond words, clutching wounds or each other in the knowledge that they and theirs were all that would soon be left of their lives when the victors had claimed spoils.

And maybe, if she was honest, not even that, but she preferred not to be honest, at least not when it came to the future and the possi-probability of execution squads in the name of 'justice.' Instead she would have her now, even if that was the taste of stone grit and glass dust on cracked, bloody lips, thirst that sobbed hopelessly in the slime at the back of her throat, and the pain of injuries she couldn't bear to ask relief for when so many screamed so horribly from so much worse.

Now was bearable, because now was also the boy whose exhaustion had overthrown bravado in her arms, and whom she cradled in a lap that didn't care how long ago her legs had gone numb. Now was closed eyes that had never looked at her like the glares she could feel from outside her cage, now was his pulse under her fingers and having survived the night which was so much more than so many could say.

"Miss Greengrass, I need to speak to you." The voice was familiar, but Astoria still felt her shoulders tighten protectively as she looked up into the sharp-planed face of Mrs. Malfoy. She was as filthy and bloody as the rest of them, but she still carried herself like a queen as she settled herself to the floor, laying a hand on her sleeping son's shoulder as if to remind the younger girl exactly who held the power in this situation.

As if she needed reminding. She should have been intimidated like every time before, but something had changed last night - everything had changed last night - and she met the lined grey eyes evenly. "Yes, Madam?"

"It is my understanding that you returned to the castle with the DA?" Her voice was frozen, unreadable.

Two could play this game. Her lips tightened, her gaze refusing to falter, and she took her strength from the steady rhythm in Draco's neck under her fingers that justified everything. "I did."

To her surprise, it was Mrs. Malfoy who broke the look, staring away into the middle distance between them and their captors with the transparency of a sphinx. "We all make mistakes, it seems. Particularly under times of duress."

She should have remained respectfully silent, but maybe her own lack of sleep and excess of emotion had the better of her judgment, tossing her head to throw the limp, sodden strands of hair back from her brow. Damned his mother if she could condemn her for risking everything to save her son while she and his father hid who even knew where with the Dark Lord?! "With all due respect, I refuse to consider it a mistake. I -"

"No, dear." Her voice was a societal murmur, almost sotto vocce, but it cut her off like a slap. "I was referring to myself."

Astoria blinked. "I don't understand."

Mrs. Malfoy turned to her again, and there was something new in her face that Astoria had never hoped nor expected to see. Something she didn't dare name for fear of being wrong, but that made her own pulse speed up with something too much like possibility, her throat thicken in ways that had nothing to do with dust or thirst. It was almost like kind. Almost like...no. "If you recall, I told Draco rather firmly that there was no place by the side of a powerful wizard for a weak witch, and that I expected him to be a powerful wizard."

"I do recall, yes." Now she did speak in a deferential whisper, unable to make herself do otherwise, the boldness so recently so strong evaporated in the shaking of her hands as they continued to pass in unconscious rhythm through the clotted strands of Draco's silky-fine hair.

"In that, I was not mistaken," Mrs. Malfoy continued, "and there was a great deal I did not say. The wife of a great wizard is hated, she is spat on, she is always suspect, she is lonely beyond words, and she must be exceptionally strong willed and assured of what she wants and how much she wants it."

She nodded, hardly breathing. "So I've seen..."

"Which is why I've given him permission to propose to you."

It was a still a picture of defeat, and to an outsider, nothing had changed except that now another girl was weeping, hardly notable in the chorus of tears that filled the broken hall. Somewhere, a camera flashed, and she would see her own picture in the papers later and learn her first real lesson about the truth of Mrs. Malfoy's warning in the caption that didn't realize that the alabaster pale boy in her lap lived - oh, he lived - and that her tears, perhaps alone in the blood red morning, were tears of hope.

FIN